Front Page Reviews & AIR
There are only a few songs that are so influential that people remember exactly where they were the first time they heard them. My Dad, and most of his generation, remembers where they were the first time they heard the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” Many people from my generation remember the first time they heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I remember where I was the first time I heard the Strokes’ “Last Nite.”
It was 2001, and Rock ‘n Roll was in a dark place. I had pretty much given up on my alternative rock radio station, Boston’s WFNX (R.I.P.), as it had become saturated with “nu metal” like Limp Bizkit, Godsmack and even (oh, the horror) Crazy Town. But on this particular Saturday morning I was driving from my college on Boston’s North Shore back home to New Jersey for a gig with my ska band, The Blithering Idiots. I decided to endure the radio for the first leg of my journey before commencing the tedious and somewhat dangerous task of sifting through my massive CD collection, which rode shotgun, piled precariously in jewel cases. I was still too attached to the idea of albums to even consolidate them into a travel wallet.
Mainstream Alternative Rock had long since ceased to be oxymoronic and most of us had given up on it altogether (hence the ska band). But on that fateful morn, amidst the Kid Rocks and Linkin Parks, I heard the strangest song. Was it new? Was it old? I couldn’t tell, but it sure was catchy. And it sure was different. And as quickly as it came, it went. It just sort of flickered there in the darkness, then vanished back into the Nickelback-Creed abyss, almost as though I had dreamt it. But a few days later I heard it again. And within a couple of weeks I was hearing other songs that didn’t sound like anything else on the radio.
“Last Nite” was the first of three songs that seemed to elbow their way onto the airwaves in 2001, helping to usher in a new generation of rock ‘n’ roll that borrowed from its forbearers rather than seeking to outdo them. The second of these tunes was, of course, the White Stripes’ “Fell In Love with a Girl.” They and the Strokes both went on to enjoy a full decade of increasingly successful albums.
But the third contributor was a bit more obscure, and has become only more so over time. The Hives came out of Sweden with “Hate to Say I Told You So,” an amped-up, garage-rock anthem with a sense of humor to top it off. The song came off Veni Vidi Vicious, an album chock full of two-minute punk ‘n’ roll gems like “Main Offender” and “Die, Alright.”
I rushed out to purchase these albums at my local Newbury Comics, and while I enjoyed all three, I listened to Veni Vidi Vicious far more frequently than Is This It or White Blood Cells. I couldn’t get enough of its frantic pace, raw energy and tongue-in-cheek lyrical bravado. In a 2007 Hives album review, Amanda Petrusich of Pitchfork looks back on all these releases with a cynical eye, but she gets it right when she observes, “…Of all the over-hyped revivalists of the early 00s, the Hives might be the most fun.”
I should note here that it’s easy and mostly justifiable to call out this so-called New Rock Revolution for what it was: A last-gasp attempt by major labels to milk the golden calf of rock ‘n’ roll before turning almost exclusively to pop and hip-hop. But what Petrusich and others overlook in their dismissal of these pseudo-garage rock bands is one simple fact: After half a decade of hell, decent rock music was on the radio again. And if, in the decade since, the visceral repulsion of listening to millenial alt-rock has dulled, pull up a little Limp Bizkit on your Spotify and I assure you, it will come flooding back.
The people who were really paying attention in 2001 (I count myself as half-paying attention, maybe as little as 30% actually) were probably listening to indie bands like Modest Mouse and the Murder City Devils. But while the Strokes/Hives/White Stripes albums were all released by major labels and therefore lacked the same kind of indie street cred, it should be noted that the White Stripes and the Hives were discovered more than manufactured. I can’t say the same for the Strokes.
My own personal playlist of the period (the stack of jewel cases beside me) was a somewhat eclectic mix of punk, ska and nerdy rock – Hot Water Music, Alkaline Trio, DEVO, Rancid, the Slackers, They Might Be Giants and so on. These bands consistently soothed my weary musical soul around the turn of the millennium. But I turned on the radio now and then in the usually vain hope of finding something new and decent. For me, the Hives more than fit that bill.
The Hives were reminiscent of the Ramones, in that they were on an outspoken mission to save rock ‘n’ roll from treacherous, complicating forces. Joey and his gang protested the over-embellished psychedelic rock of the 70s. Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist and his brother, Nicholas Arson, stood against the desperate evolutions of post-grunge and nu metal of the late 90s. According to a recent Spin profile, the band members swore as teenagers that they would create albums of straight-ahead punk rock no longer than 30 minutes. That’s exactly what they achieved with Veni Vidi Vicious, but they added an old-school flair. They weren’t just punk revivalists. They were rock ‘n’ roll revivalists. They didn’t just try to recreate the late-70s. The Hives borrowed a little something from every era from the 50s on.
In a way, The Hives represent the quintessential postmodern band, a perfect example of musical pastiche. They’re not quite parody and not quite homage. Their style is comprised of a hodgepodge of rock ‘n’ roll tidbits. The matching black and white suits suggest early Beatles. On stage, they have the cocky, curled-lipped swagger of the Rolling Stones. The fuzzy guitar riffs could fit into any Kinks or Stooges song, while Howlin’ Pelle squeals like Little Richard. The simple-but-catchy songs all clock in at respectable Chuck Berry lengths. And then, of course, there are the punk-rock stage names that hearken back to Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious and the rest of the Sex Pistols.
But with a goofy stage show and names like Dr. Matt Destruction, it’s impossible to tell for sure whether The Hives are paying tribute to these legends or making fun of them. I suspect that it’s a bit of both, like they understand how silly this whole rock ‘n’ roll shtick is, yet they can’t help but love it – a refreshingly honest approach. And so, of course, they had to create their own shtick, declaring themselves the “hottest band in the world” and putting on haughty, yet endearing live performances. The Hives possess an unchecked ire for bands that they see as too self-indulgent. When they opened for Ben Harper and Pearl Jam at a European rock festival, Howlin’ Pelle famously declared, “We are here to save your evening.”
Despite setting out to make a career of resuscitating what they saw as pure rock, the Hives never really matched the success of Veni Vidi Vicious. The band had already been together for seven years when they recorded the album for the skate-punk label, Burning Heart, before being snatched up by Warner Music Group. Burning Heart fought for its rights to the Hives, who owed them one more album. It’s not clear exactly how they were forced out – something about Burning Heart’s affiliation with Epitaph and Epitaph’s affiliation with Warner – but Burning Heart were ultimately shoved aside by industry forces greater than themselves.
Though I didn’t quite recognize it at the time, the early-00’s rock revival was eerily similar to the grunge movement. With the exception of The Strokes, who, from what I’ve heard, were basically the rich kids of media moguls, bands like The Hives, The White Stripes and the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs seemed uncomfortable with their sudden, manufactured success. That discomfort is palpable in the White Stripes’ 2002 VMA performance. It’s all a rather grim reminder of the grunge bands thrust into the spotlight a decade earlier. None of whom responded all that well to fame and fortune.
So the Hives spent the better part of the last decade getting kicked around by major record labels, all trying to recreate the magic of Veni Vidi Vicious. After years of working with renowned producers in various American studios, yet with less and less success each time, The Hives finally returned home to Sweden to record their upcoming album, which will be released by their own independent label, Disques Hives. I suspect this is where they always belonged.
We often lump The Hives in with the handful of bands that kicked off the so-called New Rock Revolution and promptly faded from view. But while bands like the Vines were simply a flash in the pan and Jet felt truly manufactured and derivative, the Hives’ had real heart and, I think, a real impact.. Up until 2000, everyone was looking for the ‘next new thing’ in rock ‘n’ roll. But there was nothing new left (or at least nothing new and good). Finally, three bands showed that in order to move forward, they had to look back. Rock ‘n’ roll. Punk. Blues. They could glean something worthwhile from all of it. Without the Hives’ channeling old rhythm ‘n’ blues, would the Killers have been okay channeling disco rhythms and still calling themselves a rock band? Would Passion Pit and MGMT have been okay with utilizing the dance beats and synthesized sounds of 80’s pop? And would pop stars like Amy Winehouse and Cee Lo have incorporated classic Soul and even Big Band elements into their Top 40 hits?
Well, okay, maybe they would have. But I think the retro-ish sounds of early-00’s rock really opened the door. Some may not think that this sort of musical relativism is a step in the right direction, but I, for one, am unendingly thankful for the era of permissiveness the Hives helped usher in. I can remember when hair metal was anathema to all us greasy-haired, corduroy-clad grunge kids stood for. Now we’re belting out Iron Maiden (and modern day recreations like Bang Camaro) while we play Rock Band. We no longer look down our noses at the decades that preceded ours. We’re not forced to declare allegiance to one genre or another. We don’t have to hide our Bright Eyes albums from our Rancid-loving friends. We can rock out to Muse one minute and mellow out to Bon Iver the next and no one will give us a sideways glance.
All this seems a rather gushy, ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ approach to music fandom. But even as I explore the local music scene with my current band in Boston, I’m encouraged by the way punk, metal, psychedelic rock, soul, electronica, folk, etc. can exist in harmony with fans overlapping left and right. Local music blogs and podcasts cover the gamut of genres. New bands can be not only be influenced by any genre from any era of rock ‘n’ roll, they can outright steal from it. And often by mixing multiple genres from multiple eras, they wind up creating something unique and great.
The Hives excelled in this regard. Their music was everything rock was meant to be. Noisy. Rambunctious. Fun. The unforgiving nature of the music industry kept them suspended in a musical purgatory somewhere between punk success and mainstream appeal, but let’s give the Hives their due.